The undercover cop role is always hard for an actor to pull off since they’re acting as a character faking it as another character. This might seem easy, but most of the time what you end up watching is an actor playing a cop character that’s putting on a caricature of a con. Think of the less successful episodes of Miami Vice when Philip Michael Thomas slapped on a Jamaican accent and a smile as his cover. James Nesbitt (Bofur in The Hobbit) doesn’t go cheap with the subterfuge as Detective Sergeant Tommy Murphy. He’s an extremely complicated undercover cop from Northern Ireland who knows how to hide his real identity. Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection provides all five series of the best undercover cop TV show ever made.
Murphy doesn’t play it safe when he goes undercover. He’s willing to risk his life because a part of him is already dead. His family had been taken hostage by the IRA. He was given an explosive vest and told to blow up a military barracks or his daughter would be killed. He couldn’t do it and they slaughtered his daughter in front of his wife. The government treated him as a hero, but he was destroyed inside. Murphy seems relieved to lose himself in an undercover operation as a method of forgetting his past. “The Pilot” has him infiltrate a sinister pack of undertakers that are smuggling diamonds and heroin through their day job. “Electric Bill” books Murphy into prison to get hard evidence against a murderer on the verge of being released. They need to keep him behind bars at all costs. “Manic Munday” exposes rigged snooker matches. You might want to go online to get a brief summary of the game that’s almost like pool. “Reunion” escalates a mob war in London. “Kiss and Tell” gets a bit kinky with Murphy sneaking into a club for swingers. The first series is five episodes that are around 90 minutes long each. This gives the feeling that Murphy is part of a movie and not merely TV cop.
The second series has six episodes that are reduced down to around 50 minutes, but Nesbitt doesn’t make things seem reduced. “Jack’s Back” puts him on the trail of a serial killer in London’s West End district. “Bent Moon on the Rise” deals with why a rising cop would kill themselves. Murphy’s own depression comes into play. “Ringers” sticks him with Interpol as a car thief. He looks good jacking luxury vehicles. “Go Ask Alice” seeps from a chemical leak. Nesbitt gets to pose as a priest in “Convent.” He’s set lose on nuns to solve a non-miracle mystery. “The Group” lets murderers get murdered. Will Murphy take his time to find the killer of killers? He can’t be too leisurely about the case since there’s a face from his past amongst the suspects. Will he let this get personal?
Things get changed up for series three so that instead of episodic adventures, the six episodes deal with Murphy working his way up the chain of command of a crime syndicate. He craves a major bust. Murphy quickly gets the attention of Dave Callard with his offer to be a hitman. He has to figure out how to whack people without actually killing them. Callard is involved in counterfeit Euros and heroin, but Murphy sees there’s even bigger things in the mobster’s empire. The first two seasons weren’t exactly comedy, but the tone gets extremely heavy for the third season. Murphy’s Law pulls off this dip into the bleak that alienated way too many Miami Vice fans. It also helps that Murphy has grown a badass fu manchu mustache which works better than Don Johnson’s mullet.
Series 4 and 5 both have three episodes that deal with a single storyline. Series 4 gets complicated for Murphy. He’s taking time off the job to be with his mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, but the force needs him to uncover what the Johnstone brothers are doing. Drew Johnstone is marrying into a Pakistani family. Billy Johnstone isn’t happy his brother converting to Islam or his new in-laws. Murphy uses this crack to wedge himself into the siblings’ crime family. Things get complicated when one of his team loses the notes on the operation. Murphy has to act fast before he’s exposed. The relationship with Murphy and his mother is poignant as she begins to forget her son while Murphy struggles to remember himself after all his fake identities. Series 5 puts him into a human trafficking operation. He’s supposed to be taking it easy on this case as the cover officer except his two proteges disappear. He has to get into the criminal enterprise to discover their fate and hopefully rescue them. The ending is a great shocker about what happens when an undercover agent forgets that they are the law. When watched together, Murphy’s Law rates up with The Wire, Cracker and Prime Suspect in its elevation of character and crime.
The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The transfers look fine with plenty of details as Murphy descends into the seedy underbellies. The audio is Dolby Digital Stereo. Things sound fine although you might want to turn on the subtitles to understand the accents.
Biography of James Nesbitt is a short overview in text form.
James Nesbitt Notes is a short article interviewing the actor before the start of Series 4.
Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection is highly recommended for anyone who after finishing The Wire wonders what to watch next. Nesbitt gets beneath his undercover cop character. He gives him enough edge and grit that it never seems like a simple masquerade when he infiltrates a crime gang. The intensity builds over the course of the five series so it’s not just the same emotional level each episode.
Acorn Media presents Murphy’s Law: Complete Collection. Starring: James Nesbitt. Boxset Contents: 23 episodes on 9 DVDs. Released on DVD: August 30, 2011. Available at Amazon.com.
Tags: James Nesbitt, Prime Suspect, The Hobbit, The Wire